sympathy for the damned
April 14, 2013 5 Comments
In Dante’s Inferno, the narrator and his guide descend through the 9 rings of Hell, progressing from the least offensive sinners to the most evil, from the Limbo of unbaptized babies and virtuous pagans, past the lustful, the gluttonous, the greedy; down past the heretics and murderers, ever deeper to the frozen center of the pit, where a 3-headed Satan is gnawing eternally on the 3 vilest men in human history.
In his central mouth, the Beast chomps on Judas Iscariot, of course. Who but the Apostle who betrayed the Messiah could possibly be more guilty of the worst punishment that eternity has to offer? Who could even come close?
Well, for Dante, there is a clear second-worst crime, and it’s such a close second that it fills both of Satan’s remaining two mouths: the assassination of Julius Caesar. In satanic maw #2 we find Marcus Junius Brutus; Senator Gaius Cassius Longinus fills mouth #3.
While Dante was a firm believer in the separation of church and state, that did not mean a separation of the religious and the political realms. He just wanted a strong emperor to stay the hand of the pope. And it was his support for the state over the church that got him exiled from his beloved home city of Florence.
There are several ironies here. One is that Florence would later embrace their hometown boy as a source of great civic pride. He did, after all, make the Florentine vernacular the literary language of all of Italy, long before there was such a political entity as "all of Italy."
Another irony is that Florence was a republic, much as Rome had been a republic before Julius Caesar (who was history’s second-most important victim of betrayal, remember) overthrew centuries of decentralizing government in order to run the whole show himself. There is no more centralized government than that ruled by a dictator for life.
Brutus and Cassius may have been self-interested thugs, Roman senators provoked by the increasing irrelevance of the Roman Senate under a lifelong dictatorship. Or they may have been ideologically dedicated republicans, moved to extreme acts by the very real threat of their friend and former colleague Caesar. Future republican tradition would remember them in this latter way, as ideological heroes and martyrs. The English and Anglo-American republicans in particular would reverse Dante’s symbolic schema, identifying Caesar with tyranny and despotism, lauding the republican senators, including Caesar’s assassins, as the heroic champions of liberty and reason.
One of those republican ideologues was an English stage actor named Junius Brutus Booth (1796–1852). His father was a London lawyer who avidly supported the new American republic — and one of the ways the father announced his classical-liberal values to the world was by naming his son after one of Julius Caesar’s republican assassins.
Junius Brutus Booth in turn named his son after an English hero of radical liberal politics: John Wilkes, who was also a distant relative of the Booths. Wilkes wasn’t a regicide, but he did do the next worst thing, according to the Tory powers of the time: he attacked the king in print. At one point, when Wilkes was in King’s Bench prison for what he had written, his supporters appeared outside King’s Bench, chanting, “No liberty, no king!” (Troops opened fire on the unarmed protestors.)
If a modern Dante — someone with the same religious and political beliefs, but with an updated knowledge of history — were to write the Inferno today, he would replace Cassius in satanic mouth #3 with John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln 148 years ago today, April 14, 1865.
Lincoln may not have shared Dante’s faith, but he knew how to use the rhetoric of the Bible to stoke the fervor of 19th-century Christian pietists; and after his assassination, the pietists returned the favor by enshrining Father Abraham in the language of Christian martyrdom.
As John Wilkes Booth shot the Union’s president, he shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” — thus always to tyrants, a phrase attributed to Brutus as he stabbed the dying Caesar. It’s also the state motto of Virginia, where I live.
Today’s civic religion requires us to canonize Lincoln, to see his life as a crusade for ever-greater freedom and his violent death as the American equivalent of crucifixion.
One of the many things we’ve lost track of in this sanctioned interpretation is an understanding of the tradition that produced John Wilkes Booth. We are only allowed to perceive the evil of chattel slavery at the center of the Civil War; we are censured if we ever emphasize an older historical struggle between liberty and power.
But the liberals of that era did see that there was more than one liberal principle at stake and that not all the angels aligned themselves with only one side in that bloody struggle.
We don’t have to support political violence (or any violence) to recognize that the same ideological tradition that informed Booth’s name, his most famous words, and his most infamous act is the same tradition that produced Western liberalism and the American Revolution. Sic semper…